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John W. Bubbles

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John Bubbles in Porgy and BessJohn W. Bubbles (1902-1986) teamed up with six-year-old "Buck" Washington. As Buck and Bubbles, the singing-dancing-comedy act lasted nearly half a century. They were featured in Ziegfeld Follies of 1931 and were the first black artists to play New York's Radio City Music Hall. Bubbles is best known for originating the role of Sportin' Life in George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess (1935). Yet his most significant contribution as an artist was to amalgamate jazz into tap dancing, placing his signature on the form during a vivid era of innovation.

By adding complicatedsyncopations and heel drops to create off-beats, he altered accents, phrasing, and timing, simultaneously grounding rhythms and projecting an easy nonchalance. Long associated with the Hoofers Club in Harlem, Bubbles went from three-shows-a-day in vaudeville to Broadway and a stint in Hollywood, where he appeared in Varsity Show (1937), Cabin in the Sky (1943), and A Song Is Born (1948). He played the Palace Theater with Judy Garland in 1967 and appeared in Black Broadway (1979). Bubbles received the 1980 Life Achievement Award from the American Guild of Variety Artists.

Pictured right: Portrait of John Bubbles in his best-remembered role as Sportin' Life in the original cast of George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. (Photograph by Carl Van Vechten.)


 John W. Bubbles (1902-1986)

By Margaret Morrison

Dancer, singer, and entertainer John W. Bubbles is described as the father of rhythm tap. In the early 1920s, he revolutionized tap dance by cutting the tempo, adding intricate syncopations, dropping his heels to create off-beats, and extending rhythmic patterns beyond the usual eight bars of music. He said of his style, “I wanted to make it complicated so I put more taps in and changed the rhythm and timing (Goldberg, Shoot Me, 93). He was best known for his singing, dancing, and comedy act with pianist Ford Lee “Buck” Washington. Buck and Bubbles were among the first African Americans to gain the acclaim of white audiences as stars on vaudeville, Broadway, and in Hollywood films, and Bubbles became one of the few black tap dancers to appear regularly on television. There is no tap dancer today who has not been influenced by Bubbles’s inventions.

John W. Bubbles, originally John Sublett, was born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1902 and was raised in Indianapolis. He began performing with his sisters at age seven. Newspapers noted his cleverness as an eleven-year-old singer, dancer, and comedian, and his remarkable ability as a real artist. By 1918, he had teamed with Buck Washington (1906-1955), and they got their first break while working as ushers in Louisville. The manager called on them to fill a gap in the line-up, insisting they wear blackface make-up to disguise the fact that they were African American, because blacks were barred from playing that stage. They remained together for nearly forty years, Bubbles always including Washington in his contracts.

In 1919 the duo reached New York City, where they were an immediate success at the Columbia Theater. Three weeks later, they played the Palace, the top vaudeville theater of the Keith Circuit. Buck and Bubbles toured coast to coast as “picks,” or young black performers, with white acrobat Nat Nazarro, bypassing the Theater Owners' Booking Association (TOBA), the black vaudeville circuit. They were among the few African Americans to star on the Keith, Orpheum, and other major white circuits, always performing in the featured spot, next to closing. Buck and Bubbles broke racial barriers throughout their career, becoming the first African-American act to be held over at the Palace, the first to play Radio City Music Hall, and the second to be featured in the Ziegfeld Follies (in the 1931 edition of the long-running stage revue).

Around 1920, Bubbles voice changed and he decided to prove himself as a dancer at the Hoofers Club, Harlem’s tap summit, but the cocky eighteen-year-old was laughed out of the club by older stars who told him, “You’re hurting the floor” (Stearns 212). For a year Bubbles practiced day and night, under theaters and backstage, returning with unbeatable skills: “I had everything. I went back to the club and ran everybody out . . . they can’t do nothing I’m doing” (Goldberg, “John Bubbles”). Bubbles was renowned as an ad-lib, or improvisational, dancer, changing his steps for each performance so that the competitors who regularly filled the first four rows of his audience could not steal his material.

Before Bubbles, tap was danced primarily on the toes, in the 2/4 feel of early jazz music. Bubbles had picked up footwork from earlier Lancashire Clog dancers, and started adding a variety of cramp rolls. Tap dancer Charles “Honi” Coles recalled when Bubbles dropped his heels “he could get an extra thud whenever he wanted it” (Stearns 212). Bubbles cut the tempo, leaving himself twice as much time to swing, add new inventions, and hit off-beats, much in the same way that jazz musicians were exploring a 4/4 feel that would become the art of big band swing. Bubbles abandoned the Buck-and-Wing structure of composing a two-bar time-step, repeating it three times, and topping it off with a two-bar break. His phrases extended beyond the usual eight bars, which anticipated the rhythmic innovations of bebop and the prolonged line of “cool” jazz in a later era.

Bubbles had an enormous influence on black and white tap dancers. He recalled that he taught Fred Astaire some steps for $400 an hour, but Astaire had difficulty learning his material: “I gave [him] heely-toe cramps, stomps, heel-toe turns, cramp rolls” (Goldberg, “John Bubbles”). Eleanor Powell remembered performing on the same vaudeville bill as Buck and Bubbles in 1928. She picked up Bubbles’s off-beat, heel-dropping style through her whole body, “lying on my stomach in the wings, watching Bubbles dance to me” (Valis Hill, 127).

Bubbles was best known on Broadway in his role as “Sportin’ Life,” for which he was selected by George Gershwin for his 1935 opera, Porgy and Bess. When Buck and Bubbles were featured in Lew Leslie's Blackbirds of 1930 and other Broadway revues, they frequently doubled at Harlem nightclubs or the Lafayette Theatre.  Bubbles noted he used the same material in both places, “but with a different feeling . . . I danced loose and rhythmic uptown—flop and flang-flang; simple and distinct downtown” (Stearns, 218). In the 1930s and 1940s, Buck and Bubbles appeared at the London Palladium and toured extensively in Europe.

The team made over a dozen feature-length and short films, including A Song Is Born (1948) and MGM’s 1943 all-black musical Cabin in the Sky, which featured Bubbles in the role of Domino Johnson, performing without taps in his strutting number, “Shine.” Two scenes in Varsity Show (1937) illustrate Bubbles’ virtuosic, extended tap phrasing and Washington’s swinging stop-time piano. Though Buck and Bubbles could not escape the racist stereotyping imposed on all African Americans in Hollywood, their depiction as janitors cannot diminish the power and charm of Bubbles’ nuanced sand dance and Washington’s needling banter. In their final sequence, Bubbles, elegantly attired in white top hat and tails, lays down long phrases of rapid foot rhythms, full of surprising heel-drops and silky variations on slides and reverse trenches,1 while Buck tosses off a comic Charleston.

Buck and Bubbles became the first African Americans to perform on television, in London (1936) and in New York (1939). After Washington's death in 1955, Bubbles appeared regularly in television shows and musical specials. In the 1960s he made a stage comeback, including stints with Judy Garland and USO tours with Bob Hope, and made several recordings as a singer, including the album Bubbles, John W., That Is.

In 1967 Bubbles suffered a stroke which left him partially paralyzed, but during the Tap Renaissance of the 1970s and beyond, he was rediscovered by a new generation. In 1979-80, he appeared in the documentary No Maps on My Taps and in the first tap festival, “By Word of Foot.” He sang at the Newport Jazz Festival and in Black Broadway, and received the American Guild of Variety Artists (AGVA) Life Achievement Award. In 1986, John Bubbles suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died in his home in Baldwin Hills, California. His contemporaries considered him unbeatable as an all-around entertainer. Bubbles inspired generations of dancers and forever changed the landscape of tap.


NOTES

1. Trenches are a virtuosic step in tap dance that consist of long backward slides, alternating each leg while the torso is still, bent forward from the hips. Bubbles is credited with inventing reverse trenches, leaning the torso back in the style of a cakewalk strut, while sliding the legs forward.

Margaret Morrison is a rhythm tap soloist, choreographer, playwright, and dance historian. Her performance and research projects explore gender, race, sexuality, and history in tap dance. She teaches tap at Barnard College, toured internationally with the ATDO, and is Education Advisor for the American Tap Dance Foundation. She recently premiered her first play, Home In Her Heart. She has a forthcoming paper “Juanita Pitts: Race, Gender, and the Female Hoofer” and is   contributing several articles on tap for the Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism. She received her MFA in Dance from Hollins University/ADF. www.MargaretMorrison.com


 

Selected Resources for Further Research

Books & Articles

Folkart, Burt A. "John Bubbles, Tap-Dance Great, Gershwin Performer, Dies at 84." Los Angeles Times. May 20, 1986.

Giles, Freda Scott. “John Bubbles.” African American National Biography. Ed. Henry Louis

Gates, Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Goldberg, Jane. “John Bubbles: A Hoofer’s Homage.” Village Voice. December 4, 1978.

______. Shoot Me While I’m Happy: Memories from The Tap Goddess of the Lower East Side. New York: Woodshed Productions, 2008.

“John W. Bubbles Obituary.” Variety. May 21, 1986.

“Johnnie Sublett Will Sing…” Indianapolis Freeman. March 21, 1914.

Smith, Bill. The Vaudevillians. New York: Macmillan, 1976.

Stearns, Marshall and Jean. Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance. New York: Da Capo, 1994.

Valis Hill, Constance. Tap Dancing America: A Cultural History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Moving Image

Cabin in the Sky. Directed by Vincent Minnelli, 1943. DVD. Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video, 2006.

Jazz Hoofer: The Story of the Legendary Baby Laurence. Directed by Bill Hancock. VHS. New York: Rhapsody Films, 1986.

No Maps on My Taps. Directed by George Nierenberg. DVD. New York: GTN Productions, 1979.

Over the Top To Bebop. Produced by Dan Gallagher. VHS. New York: Creative Arts Television, 1965.

Varsity Show. Directed by William Keighley, 1937. DVD. Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video, 2008.

Online Resources

“John William ‘Bubbles’ Sublett.” Internet Broadway Database. http://www.ibdb.com/person.php?id=86593

“John William Sublett.” Internet Movie Database. http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0836970/